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BOOK REVIEW: Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchell

BOOK REVIEW: Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchell

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January 22, 2021

Thanks to Turkay Gasimova, a 2020 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

In his book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell challenges traditional knowledge of the history of the Middle East, energy sources, and environmental politics.

Mitchell who had previously written a remarkable book on the colonization of Egypt, for some years spent time in the Middle East, equipping himself with the languages and knowledge of the region. As an expert in Middle Eastern Studies, in his book Mitchell gives a detailed history of the oil industry in the Middle East within the context of struggle against and for modernization.

Mitchell relates the history of oil and energy to the struggle of democracy and the formation of the politics of the Middle East in the modern world. Mitchell argues that with the rise of the coal industry, the producers who managed its production gained the ability to control the energy systems and the politics around it. In fact, this was the power that enabled them to threaten first mass democracies. The author stresses the importance of labor unions, political power of mine workers placing them at the center of the political activism. One of the engrossing arguments by the author is that oil has created an intricate political life that offered unlimited perspectives for the development and a new form of politics that came along with it. However, this, in turn, led to the unintended dependency of Western democracy on the Middle East, which had and still has serious problems with democracy. In fact, this complex situation itself can explain the current political and economic issues that threaten conventional politics and can lead to institutional crises at the end. What mostly concerns the author, it seems, is the future of democracy once oil ceases to stand at the core of the economy. The book is also a highly valuable account for understanding the rise of capitalism, mass democracy fueled by fossil fuels.

Mitchell presents the reader with a very clear and precise statement that “states that depend upon oil revenues appear to be less democratic than other states.”[1] Then he continues to explain his arguments by stating that “[f]ossil fuels helped create both the possibility of twentieth-century democracy and its limits.” He continues to help us understand these limits by suggesting “to explore what made the emergence of a certain kind of democratic politics possible,” which he calls carbon democracy.[2]

In historiography, steam energy is given great importance for creating favored conditions for the emergence of both capitalism and modernity. However, it is noteworthy that, as Mitchell says there are no sociological-political analyses of the fossil fuels that led to the steam revolution. More importantly, and equally interestingly, there is a lack of studies on the history of fossil fuels, such as coal, which were main raw materials used to produce the steam revolution. As Mitchell rightfully says, raw materials played a crucial role in the formation of both public and political environments. Although it is already public knowledge that there are solid relations between the oil-producing oligarchs of the Middle East and the ruling class of Western democracy, there are few critical works on the history of the relations between the autocratic leaders of the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries and the Western powers, especially the U.S. In this regard the history of fossil fuels is of great importance to understand the socioeconomic path of the current situation in the region. For this reason, Mitchell’s work can be considered enlightening.

In my opinion, one of the thought-provoking questions that we can derive from the book is that, as the oil resources are starting to run out (although there are complicated views on this too), how will world economies build upon such changes? Obviously in the case of such a big change, political life would also be dramatically changed. However, Mitchell prefers not to talk on this issue with much detail.

Moreover, there are some other, perhaps minor, issues that Mitchell neglected and did not give enough stress. For instance, although he mentions a “resource curse,” the author did not develop the question of transparency in the oil industry of the Middle Eastern countries which are not the pioneers in the world democracy rankings. As Andrew Barry mentions in his article “Transparency as a Political Device,” “The principle of transparency and its application to the oil industry could provide the key to the solution, as we shall see, to the problem of the ‘resource curse’, which is said to blight both the economic performance and political stability of the resource-rich countries, fostering violence and corruption.”[3] I would argue that transparency should be part of the book as Mitchell already criticizes undemocratic politics. However, it is interesting to see that Mitchell is more interested in criticizing the U.S. government for intervening in the internal politics of the Middle Eastern countries rather than criticizing domestic politics of the authoritarian regimes in the region. Interestingly, he gives less space to the real problems of those countries which, in fact, are not related (at least not directly) to the foreign intervention, but to their own failures in handling social and economic crises.

To be more explicit about this argument, I would like to give an example which can be found in the majority of oil-rich countries. For instance, countries in the Middle East with rich natural resources are less likely to invest in non-oil-related fields of economy, public services including, education and healthcare in which they are way below the international standards. This situation can be explained by the fact that in a society where quality of education is very low and there is less access to information, it is easier to avoid accountability and to manipulate the masses. In this regard, transparency of the revenues and incomes and accountability of the government can rarely be observed since there are illegal business operations and the whole corrupt system is based on unfair competition or no competition at all. Additionally, Mitchell avoids or disregards issues of ethnicity within local communities, which, at times, makes his data problematic.

I believe that the fact that Middle Eastern countries have serious problems with democracy is not only related to oil but more to the patriarchal statehood traditions and, to some extent, the complex relations between the role of religion in politics. On this issue, one of the critical points made by the author is “…to see democracy as fundamentally the same everywhere, defined by universal principles that are to be reproduced in every successful instance of democratization, as though democracy occurs only as a carbon copy of itself. If it fails, as it seems to in oil states, the reason must be that some universal element is missing or malfunctioning.”[4]

I really enjoyed reading the part where Mitchell rightfully argues that industrialization was not only about the growing cities, but it was also an agrarian and colonial phenomenon. I think it is fascinating how he connects colonialism with his own carbon democracy theory. Mitchell provides us with a new perspective into the field which makes it impossible not to agree with his argument that “this relationship between coal, colonization and industrialization points to the first set of connections between fossil fuels and democracy.”[5]

Interestingly, although Mitchell talks about the “set of connections between oil and mid-twentieth-century democratic politics,” he does not really focus on those connections.

Mitchell brings new ways of looking at the relations between oil and democracy by focusing on the anti-democratic properties of the oil. Although democracy as a term is very complicated and problematic to define and to apply, still there is a growing need for more works on the bilateral relations between democracy and the aspects of industry. I do agree that there hardly can be found a comprehensive theory of democracy, especially considering the characteristics and the fundamental differences between the countries, to some extent it could be helpful to develop a kind of a tool for contextualizing the subject.

[1] Timothy Mitchell (2009) “Carbon democracy,” Economy and Society, 38:3, 399-432, DOI:10.1080/03085140903020598

[2] Timothy Mitchell (2009) “Carbon democracy,” Economy and Society, 38:3,
399-432, DOI: 10.1080/03085140903020598

[3] Akrich, Barthe, Muniesa and Mustar DÉBORDEMENTS: Mélanges offerts à Michel Callon

[4] Timothy Mitchell (2009) “Carbon democracy,” Economy and Society, 38:3,399-432, DOI:10.1080/03085140903020598 p. 400.

[5] Timothy Mitchell (2009) “Carbon democracy,” Economy and Society, 38:3,
399-432, DOI: 10.1080/03085140903020598

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